You can almost smell the dying. The spilled body fluids, the sweat, the last breath. Doesn’t matter how tidy the room looks, how scrubbed, how antiseptic. People are killed in these rooms. Killed. Not “put to death” — the euphemism preferred by a society unwilling to examine bare-bones reality: We kill. We will kill again. And the photographs at Johnson County Community College’s Gallery of Art force us to own up to it.
Since 1976, when the United States reinstated the death penalty, 724 men, women and children have been executed — some innocent and some mentally disabled. More than 3,700 people await execution. The photographs in Lucinda Devlin’s The Omega Suites depict places where death-row prisoners spend their last hours: holding cells, lethal injection chambers, electric chairs. Some photos show the places where witnesses sit or stand to watch the killing. All rooms are replete with the absence of life. There are no people here, only vestiges of our austere, whimsical or hideous death aesthetic.
In all of Devlin’s photographs, the viewer participates in the drama by means of her camera’s perspective. In “Lethal Injection Chamber From Witness Room, Cummins Unit, Grady, Arkansas 1991,” we are a witness positioned dead center in front of a large, two-paned window that looks into the lethal injection chamber. The chamber is a pristine, radiant white: white walls and ceiling and white-sheeted gurney lit up by white fluorescent lights. On the wall is a generic, white-faced clock with big black hands signaling the moment of the prisoner’s death. Also on the wall, only partially visible behind the center window frame, is an off-white telephone that presumably will not ring a stay of execution. It’s a very white room; a Hollywood concept of some heavenly way station. By contrast, the cinder-block walls, linoleum floor and drop ceiling in the witness room are blood red. The witness is surrounded by rage, or passion, or lust.
Someone, a person or persons, made those aesthetic choices related to the execution of a human being. Other people made similar choices elsewhere, selecting cheery yellow paint for an electric chair in Alabama or baby-boy blue for death-chamber walls in Texas. In Idaho, paneling and indoor-outdoor carpet make a lethal injection chamber look like a rec room from The Brady Bunch. It is as if there were a job called “interior designer for hell” and penitentiaries were the primary employers. No matter how comely the photographs themselves — and all of Devlin’s prints are startlingly elegant — each bears a content heavy with the implications of aesthetic choice, of our culture’s convoluted relationship to the death penalty.
In “Electric Chair From Witness Room, Diagnostic and Processing Center, Jackson, Georgia 1991,” the viewer is again witness, sitting in the back row of church pews as if worshipping in the Church of Our Holy Annihilation. The electric chair sits behind glass, facing the congregation, and is — coincidentally or not — constructed of oaken wood similar to that of the pews. Stranger still is a tiny door set into the right-hand wall of the witness room. Painted bright red, the door is too small for a comfortable exit but so conspicuous it can’t help but arouse curiosity as to its function. Its surreal presence brings to mind Alice in Wonderland.
These interpretations, however, are not Devlin’s. Her style is detached, without editorializing, as if she were recording nothing but architectural details. “My personal view of the role of capital punishment in our society is not at issue in these photographs,” Devlin says. “Rather, I have attempted to let the environments themselves communicate directly with viewers.” And they do talk: When a viewer must invent lives and deaths to fill a temporarily vacant space, that viewer becomes part of the circumstances. It is nearly impossible to avoid imagining the prisoner strapped to the gurney, the warden who signals the go-ahead, the doctor who declares the time of death, the witness who cries, the one who grins. Such imagining (thankfully) is as close as most of us will come to witnessing a legal killing. But physical distance allows us emotional distance — and anonymous irresponsibility.
Photographer Stephen Tourlentes chooses to turn his camera on a corresponding distance in his series, Building Absence. Tourlentes shoots landscapes — or rather, prisonscapes: exquisitely moody black-and-white shots of penitentiaries at night, from Leavenworth, Kansas, to Fishkill, New York, and beyond. Each prison is lit up like a carnival or ballpark, and the viewer is always shrouded in darkness — whether at a suburban construction site or among river reeds.
Stylistically, Tourlentes’ photographs are the converse of Devlin’s, but their absence of people also allows the viewer to question his or her own beliefs about incarceration and punishment.
In “San Quentin, CA 1996,” for example, the penitentiary appears like a mythical city on the horizon, its glow so dramatic against the night sky that it beckons to us from our Cimmerian spot by a winding river. It is as if the tables have been turned: We are the wild ones, hunted and haunted, gazing longingly at a world beyond our reach.
“I intend for the images to have a stark elemental and psychological presence,” Tourlentes says. “Their glow spills into the night, demarcating the boundaries of exiles…. This illumination eventually fails the free terrain, leaving the viewer outside in shadow. They are important icons that we tend to push to the periphery of our consciousness.”
Out of sight, out of mind.